The Paradox of the First Five Years of Life

I have often pondered, especially when I was more prone to shelling out hundreds of dollars on gym or music classes, just how human development really works. If my children are not going to remember almost all of their first five years of life, then why was I “loading every rift with ore,” so to speak, and trying to make each day as full of structured activity and enrichment as possible?  The only answer that could justify this amount of effort would be that somehow each and every one of those experiences is contributing to the formation of a human being, and that their absence would lead to a real and meaningful lack.


This is the argument of the “Teach Your Child to Read” programs constantly advertised on TV, as well as the music program that Jane attended through most of her first five years and the twins for two of them.  They tell a willing audience that there is only a small window of opportunity to maximize your child’s potential, and there is no making up for it in the future.  How true is this?  Why are we all so willing to believe it, and substitute curricular, expensive activity for freedom to explore and be part of an ordinary day?  I’m sure it’s partly because the conscientious parent takes the sacred duty of forming another human being very seriously, and is always looking for ways to do it better.  And, as it doesn’t seem likely that there could ever be a conclusive way to prove whether these early learning programs do or do not make a lifelong difference, we eager parents had better err on the side of caution, right?


My layman’s observation of Jane’s reading development is a case in point.  I did indeed miss that window at nine months (or whatever it is) to ensure advanced reading and comprehension by the age of two (or whatever it is), and this has had no impact on her later life that seems to matter to the naked eye.  She is, in fact, freakishly advanced and painfully under-challenged in school as a seven-year-old, having only learned to read at a “mere” five.  About music I feel less secure having an opinion, but following these kinds of marketing arguments to their absurd ends, there is so much that we “should” be doing every minute, that the child should actually never have a free moment between her language, music, art, signing, and gymnastics classes.


So I guess I’m asking whether particular experiences matter in the first five, largely forgotten, years of life, or whether the take-away from these years is going to be the warmth of your parents, the amount of freedom you had to follow your interests (in sticks, mud, and insects, mostly – all free), and the long, open-ended days in which life unfolds and works itself into the intricate fibers of your child’s mind.


Maybe I’m just lazy and cheap.  Or maybe it’s just that easy.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anastasia
    Feb 24, 2011 @ 20:30:52

    I agree with you here. I don’t know if you are familiar with Waldorf- Steiner theory, but it says that it’s almost dangerous to teach intellectual things (like reading and writing) to kids before they are seven years old, as the first few years should be dedicated mostly to physical development.


    • mamamissy
      Feb 25, 2011 @ 17:48:35

      Yes, I know some about Steiner and the Waldorf schools, and I definitely agree with the play advocates wholeheartedly. The only problem is that kids are now getting slammed when they get into kindergarten and have to be ready to do calculus (exaggeration). We are free to parent how we want until age 5, anyway, unless we want to take on the whole journey and homeschool. I think about it daily.


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